Relaxing in China part 1: Massage

Picture a quiet room that smells of essential oils, maybe tea tree or lavender. The lights are dim, and there’s a candle or two flickering in the corner. The background noise is either a small burbling fountain or a CD of monks chanting. A masseuse expertly spreads warm, fragrant oil across your bare back while you accidentally fall asleep….

Cue needle-ripping-off-of-record sound — this is China, baby. Pretty much everything here (dinner, strolling in the park, a visit to the acupuncturist) is accompanied by noise, groups, and fluorescent lights, making what North Americans normally consider “relaxing” experiences worlds away. Massage is no different.

First, toss away that quiet, private room. Oh, and keep your clothes on for goodness sake — there are other people in the room with you. True, your masseuse is likely to be blind, (blind folks are considered disabled and therefore unable to work in very many occupations), but still. They’ll cover your body with a sheet and massage you through that. Next, bring a couple of friends — getting a massage is an excuse to be social, after all. Enjoy your cup of green tea during a foot massage, or maybe watch the big-screen TV while the masseuses gossip with each other.

%Gallery-92547%A massage in China ranges from full-body (they even rub your face down), to my favorite, a foot massage. Generally you can choose what kind you want, though some places are geared towards one or the other. You’ll find a massage joint on every street; because it so cheap (anywhere from $3-10 US) it’s possible for people to enjoy a regular rub-down.

So what can you expect with a massage in China?

First, anticipate the usual bright lights and crowds. I did some spa research for hot springs outside Kunming and saw rooms with 100 chairs for foot massage. Expect noise — whoever is pressing their hands into you will likely be chatting with their friend across the way, or occasionally answering their cell phone. A full-body massage will require the same kind of table you’re used to, with a hole for your face. However, no oils or lotions are used; instead a sheet will be placed over you and the masseuse will work through that.

If you go with friends, you can expect the masseuses to work in unison. It’s odd at first; the massage is a well-timed routine, and you’ll hear rubbing, popping and slapping at the same time across the room. There’s no real individual treatment, unless you ask for it. Everyone is treated the same – you know, kind of like in communism.

A foot massage is a fun, social activity since you can sit next to and chat with your buddies, rather than have a muffled conversation while face-down on a massage bed. My favorite type of foot massage is a medicinal one: you choose a scent from a menu, and a wooden bucket lined with a plastic trash bag is filled with almost-too-hot water. Then a packet of fragrant … stuff … is added, which turns the water into a jelly-like substance (it feels great between the toes). After a few minutes of soaking, a “magic” powder is added that turns the jelly back to liquid (see gallery). After a few more minutes of soaking, your bare feet will get a thorough rubbing. Often your back and neck will get some attention as well.

High-end spa treatment it ain’t, but a thrice-weekly after-dinner activity with your friends it is. Once you adjust your cultural expectations, it becomes a Chinese experience worth repeating.

Read more about my life in China here.

Classic Treks: Tiger Leaping Gorge, China

China isn’t usually the first place that comes to mind when adventure travelers are considering their next challenging, trek. But the country has plenty of remote, wild places that can offer backpackers an amazing hiking experience. Perhaps the best of those is a trek through Tiger Leaping Gorge, a deep canyon located along the Yangtze River in the southwest portion of the country.

Tiger Leaping Gorge is an excellent hike for independent trekkers looking to escape the hustle and bustle, not to mention the pollution, of China’s busy cities. Located about 40 miles north of Lijiang City in Yunnan Province, the trail first rose to prominence in the 1980’s, when western backpackers began to explore the area. At that time, there were actually two distinct routes, consisting of the easier and flatter “Low Trail” and the much more challenging and dangerous “High Road”. The Low Trail has recently been paved over and made into a highway and while it is still an option, the High Road is a far superior option.

That trail is a mere 15 miles in length and requires just two days to hike end to end, but it is a long and difficult trek thanks to the steep trails and dramatic changes in altitude. The mountains that flank the trail are both well over 16,000 feet in height, and the sheer cliff faces fall away sharply. More than 6500 feet below, the Yangtze River can be seen rushing by, making a thunderous noise as it passes. Scenic vistas dominate the region, giving you plenty to gawk at throughout the journey.
The first day of the trek generally takes hikers up more than 3000 feet, but rewards their efforts with a stay in a local tea house, which are found frequently along the route. The tea houses are great places to get food and drinks, while taking a break from the trail, and they offer cramped, but comfortable accommodations for the night when you’ve decided to put up your feet by the fire.

The second day of the trek is not any easier than the first, although the trail does turn down out of the mountains, eventually depositing hikers on the banks of the Yangtze, the very river they’ve been watching from above for the past two days. The narrow trail can be difficult to navigate at times, but the views are worth the effort, as you’ll find that the altitude isn’t the only thing that takes your breath away.

There are few reliable maps for the region, but fortunately the trail is well marked and easy to follow. You can choose to hike it with a guide, but it is also very easy to do independently as well. Simply hop a bus from Lijiang for about $4 and then pay the entrance fee to the Gorgel, which is about another $8. From there, you simply follow the designated route, going at your own pace, and choosing to stop at a tea house when ever you desire.

While not as long as some of the other major trekking trails in the world, Tiger Leaping Gorge still has plenty to offer, and is an excellent escape from modern, metropolitan China, which can provide sensory overload at times. For a little peace and quite, and fresh air, add this trek to your itinerary, and you’ll get to experience a piece of rural China that few outsiders experience.

Far West in the Far East: Twenty-four hours in Xiding

On my trip to Xishuangbanna a couple of weeks ago, I was able to time a trip to Xiding with its weekly Thursday market. A vibrant, colorful affair filled with photogenic Hani women, various animal parts, string tobacco, and pretty much everything else under the bright morning sun, the market was an obvious draw to the town. But Xiding is also a great place to hike around the rolling hills, as there are many minority villages in the area.

On the map, Xiding is very close to Menghze, where we stayed the night before. We caught an early-morning bus, bumping along a dusty, flat road in the midst of dormant rice paddies. After a completely straight thirty minutes, our bus hit the mountains and started climbing. I had no idea Xiding was in the mountains, so it was a pleasant surprise to measure our progress by the views we were gaining. The bus twisted up hillsides for another 30 minutes, finally reaching a sunny, thin-aired Xiding.

We saw only one hotel, which cost my friend and me each about $2.50 for a shared room. The bathroom was in a back courtyard, next to the smokehouse. We weren’t to have electricity until much later that night, so using the windowless bathroom was an exercise in bravery.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was traveling with a friend who was researching the relationship between tourism and minority crafts. We decided to follow the dirt road that continued out of Xiding in the hopes that we would come across a minority village, and after two hours of walking along the cultivated hillsides, we found what we were looking for. Shaded by thick growth, a small village full of wood homes with thatched roofs sat quietly, looking at the same view as Xiding.

%Gallery-80168%Within minutes, a man invited us to rest in his home with a cup of tea. He chatted with my friend, while his wife and grandchild looked in, sunlight illuminating them in the doorway. From there, we followed a path between homes and came across an old woman weaving on a giant bamboo loom, a good fifteen feet of thread stretched out in front of her. A young man probably in his early twenties and dressed in a suit was the only person who spoke Mandarin. He translated for my friend, who asked about the the woman’s weaving: Did she spin her thread? Yes. Did she dye it? Yes. Who did she sell it to? Other Hani people. He opined that the older Hani were stubborn and backwards, because they refused to wear modern clothing and were very poor. He was on a visit from Shanghai, where he had been working for a year, and his feeling of superiority was obvious in his clothing choice.

After taking photos and watching a giant pig snuff around the dirt yard where the woman stood weaving, we set back to Xiding and arrived starving, just before dark. No electricity, so dinner was a candlelit affair, and afterward we wandered around the dark village trying to spot constellations. My friend is from the East Coast and has only seen the Milky Way twice in her life; I live in Alaska and am used to star-filled winter skies, but on this night I saw more stars than I’d ever seen in China.

We got up early the next morning to experience the market, which was filled with photogenic Dai and Hani women. The typical produce, meats and baskets of bean curd filled the sidewalks, but there was also a street-side dentist, hill tribe clothing (I bought legwarmers, which caused a bit of a stir when the women insisted on tying them on for me), angel-haired tobacco, and cheap knock-off clothing. The Thursday market was obviously the place where villagers came to do their one-stop shopping.

Since there was only one bus out of town, we bought our tickets early, boarding at noon, and then headed back down the way we came, the bus threading through steep hillsides covered in rubber trees.

To read more about my life in China, click here.

Far West in the Far East: Christmas in Kunming

It’s Christmas day here in China, but only Christmas Eve back home. I know the rhythms my friends and family are settling into in the States: the quiet streets, busy homes, smells of spices and baking, and the building anticipation of opening piles of colorful presents. Just writing that makes me feel a bit homesick, but thankfully Christmas is not a big deal in China so I don’t feel as lonely as I might if I were alone in a country that celebrates the holiday as fiercely as America does.

In Kunming, I’ve seen some half-hearted attempts at decorations, with lonely strips of tinsel tossed over a counter, or a cardboard Santa taped to a window, or restaurant employees wearing Santa hats, but in general today is just another weekday. I don’t have class, but that’s really only because my school caters to Westerners. The universities are open, though the Western instructors and students I know seem personally affronted by that. However, I think the Chinese are probably baffled by what a big deal we make out of Christmas.

With no religious connection to the holiday, I am actually a bit relieved at escaping the consumer hype of it. I think I’ll celebrate today with a walk in the sunshine, a hot white Russian, and dinner with my Jewish friend.

Far West in the Far East: The Wa Women of Nanya

Last week I was treated to the kind of experience travelers look for but seldom – at least in my case – come across. An hour up a dirt road outside a small town in western Yunnan province, China, a dozen women from the Wa tribe donned their ceremonial clothing and spent the afternoon dancing for me and my friend. All they asked was that we take photos and video of them, since there’s very little recorded of either their clothing or dances.

But let me back up. I spent the past week traveling around Xishuangbanna, an area in southern Yunnan, with My Friend the Fulbright Scholar (MFFS). MFFS is in China on a scholarship to study the relationship between tourism and minority crafts. The majority of the Chinese population is Han, but there are dozens of tribes in China that have their own clothing, language, and customs, and as might be expected, their ways of life are changing.

Though we’d visited several other minority villages during our trip, seeing the Wa was a particular goal for MFFS. Not only is the group somewhat elusive due to its rural locations along the Burmese border, but their mysterious status is amplified by the fact that they were headhunters until the 1970s.

Our luck began with our arrival in Menglian, a small town close to Burma and just north of Xishuangbanna. We planned on buying a ticket for an early morning bus to a Wa village, but read in our trusty Lonely Planet that a helpful cafe owner named Nan Qing was Wa. We sought her out, and she immediately chatted MFFS up, cooked us dinner, gave me the jacket off of her back, and arranged transport to her childhood village the next morning.

%Gallery-80170%We met Nan Qing in the morning for a Chinese breakfast of savory noodles, then hopped on motorbikes for the hour-long ride to Nanya up a dirt and cobblestone road through the mountains. All but the steepest hillsides were cultivated, and we passed small herds of water buffalo as well as people carrying impossible loads on their backs.

Once in Nanya, Nan Qing showed us around, pointing out medicinal plants and telling us about the Wa’s daily lives. While they were once large in the opium trade, their work is now mostly agricultural. They subsist on less than $1000 US per year, butchering their meat and growing most of their own food; according to Nan Qing they need only to purchase salt, spices, and rice.

We came across a woman weaving an intricate stripe for a skirt, all on a small but complicated bamboo loom. Behind her, an older woman with three-inch diameter earrings squatted and watched. While we sat in the sun, the village “official,” a petite, strong woman that appeared to be in her 50s stopped by. I thought perhaps she was keeping tabs on our whereabouts, but it turned out she was talking to Nan Qing about dancing for MFFS and me.

Nan Qing announced that the women of the village would dance for us, and asked that we please record it for them. Usually if I ask someone in China if I can take their picture they say no, so this invitation was a welcome surprise. As the women filtered onto a large cement patio outside their community hall, MFFS and I began snapping photos. They encouraged to get up close, inside their circle, and many of the women asked for photos of themselves sewing, pretending to smoke long pipes, or posing with their friends.

Their clothing consisted of long headdresses covering their waist-length hair and weighted down with silver necklaces. They paired black shirts festooned with fake silver buttons with hand-woven skirts in bright colors. The women wore heavy silver bracelets and necklaces, carried hand-woven bags, and wore Nike sport socks in a typical display of Chinese incongruity.

Though the dances were clearly all about the women, three men led the rhythm at the center with one large drum, a pair of cymbals, and a small gong. The women marched and chanted in unison, speaking in their Wa dialect. I couldn’t understand any of it, but the rituals of grooming and smoking came up several times. In one dance the women let their hair down, smoothing it and doing a side-step as they wrapped it back up in their headdresses. In another, they squatted down and pretended to light and smoke long pipes.

After several hours of dancing and posing for photos (and a giggly game of “Dress the Foreign Girls in our Traditional Clothing”), the afternoon wound down. We all meandered up small paths and stairs to the road, and most of the women headed back home, spooling bright pink thread as they walked. The only gift I had with me was a small bar of face soap from my parents’ town in Washington state, which seemed horribly inadequate for such an amazing afternoon. The women accepted it gracefully, saying that the oldest woman in the village would use it to wash her face.

Nan Qing asked my friend and me if we had any ideas on how to bring more money into Nanya. “The villagers are simple people who lead simple lives,” Nan Qing explained, “but they are very poor.” She suggested bringing tourists to watch the dancing, which MFFS and I tried not to immediately discourage. Nan Qing came up with the idea of sewing logos on the traditional clothing and selling it in town, which would bring money into the village without bringing tourists, and that seems like a great idea though I wonder if there is much of a market for those goods in little Menglian. If you have any ideas or examples of a project like that, leave me a comment.

Click here to read more about my life in China.